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August 20, 2001

Justice obstruction 2

National Post

In December, 1998, a special 23-member, all-party Parliamentary committee on child custody and access presented For the Sake of the Children, a report that concluded children should have both parents in their lives. With this goal in mind, the committee recommended that following separation or divorce, parties applying to a court for an order with respect to custody must file a plan spelling out parenting arrangements. It also concluded governments should establish a co-ordinated policy that would assure non-custodial parents (mostly fathers) have real recourse when wrongly denied access to children by the custodial parent (usually the mother). The proposal would have improved the quality of parenting in Canada and empowered parents who are wrongly denied their court-approved visitation rights. Yet it fell afoul of Anne McLellan, the Minister of Justice, and senior justice department civil servants. They have buried the report.

As a professor of law at the University of Alberta in 1991, Ms. McLellan seemed to be suspicious of granting fathers more parental rights, pointing in one discussion paper to commentators who suggested that "joint custody may simply perpetuate the influence and domination of men over women." As Minister of Justice, Ms. McLellan should have put aside this feminist dogma and taken to heart the recommendations contained in For the Sake of the Children, a document that reflected information gleaned in more than 500 public hearings. But justice department documents obtained by the National Post clearly indicate that Ms. McLellan and some justice department officials decided early on to reject any steps toward shared parenting. Such "volatile gender issues," said one official, should be avoided.

The documents show that Ms. McLellan and her top assistants devised a three-phase "communications plan" even before For the Sake of the Children was released. While the plan acknowledged that Canadians had great sympathy for thwarted single fathers, and that published editorials in favour of shared parenting "are more numerous than those supporting the status quo, or the positions presented by women's groups," Justice's basic thrust was to downplay recourse to the courts in favour of "education, mediation and less confrontational options." The effect would be to preserve 20 years of judicial precedent that has favoured mothers at the expense of fathers.

Ms. McLellan and her staff, in other words, were preparing to reject the significant proposals contained in For the Sake of the Children before they had even read the report.

To make the plan work, it was critical that officials preserve the appearance of objectivity using -- according to the media plan -- "communications messages [that] underscore the Government's open and transparent approach to consultations on the issue." Thus, the first phase of the communications plan entailed the justice minister paying homage to the good work of the committee that produced For the Sake of the Children, which she did soon after its publication. The second phase involved tabling the government's response within 150 days of the report, an exercise that was used to buy the time officials deemed necessary to dislodge from the public's mind the idea that shared parenting was in the best interests of children. The third phase, introducing new legislation containing purely cosmetic measures, has yet to come to pass.

In recent weeks, the justice department's public relations battle spilled over into the pages of the National Post. When we published a story suggesting that feminist groups who did not want to attend family law hearings with men present may be given separate hearings, it drew a response from Virginia McRae, a senior official in the Justice Department, saying that no effort was being made to indulge the feminists' request. The letter became the source of a debate in our letters page between, on the one hand, Liberal Senator Anne Cools and Liberal MP Roger Gallaway, who both support shared parenting, and, on the other, Ms. McLellan, who repeated familiar platitudes. "Our common goal," wrote the justice minister on July 20, "is to create an effective family law system across Canada that will promote a child-centred approach by focusing on children's needs and best interests." Such language might as well have been plucked straight from her media plan.

Word within senior Liberal circles is that phase three of the communication plan may soon begin. Ms. McLellan is expected by some to introduce an omnibus child poverty bill this fall that will contain amendments to access and custody laws at odds with the shared parenting recommendations contained in For the Sake of the Children. Parliament and Canadians must not allow this. Ms. McLellan has not been candid on the subject of shared parenting. She must not be permitted to reify her agenda under cover of a deceptive media strategy.

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